Pa. Town Seeks Options as Volunteer Dept. Fizzles Out

May 9, 2013
Braddock Hills officials say the town's volunteer fire department is not providing fire protection and they're looking to neighbors for help with fire service.

May 09--Elected officials in Braddock Hills say they're seeking fire services from nearby municipalities because their all-volunteer department is fizzling out.

Concern grew last month after a house caught fire on Park Avenue in Braddock Hills, across the street from the borough's volunteer fire department, and Braddock Hills firefighters failed to respond to the call. Responders from neighboring municipalities put out the blaze.

Braddock Hills council in February sought proposals from Swissvale and Forest Hills fire departments to respond to calls in the borough.

Swissvale fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm presented a written proposal to Braddock Hills' council in March.

The 11-page document said Swissvale's fire department, a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters, has "responded to and assisted Braddock Hills" with more than half of Braddock Hills' 50 to 55 annual fire calls over the past few years.

The proposal called for Braddock Hills to pay the Swissvale department an annual fee of $18,750 this year, $25,000 in 2014 and 2015, and $25,750 in 2016 and 2017.

Forest Hills manager Steve Morus said council wrote a letter to Braddock Hills officials last week indicating council members are willing to discuss the possibility of handling the borough's fire calls but has yet to submit a proposal.

Braddock Hills Mayor Mark Vogel said Swissvale's quick response to the community's request for a proposal, its mix of paid and volunteer firefighters and adequate equipment make it an easy decision.

"If Forest Hills isn't providing us with a proposal, what are we waiting for?"

But some Braddock Hills officials said they want to wait to see the proposal from Forest Hills.

Councilman Mike Evonich said Swissvale's proposal isn't detailed enough; he wants to know what Braddock Hills' costs would be beyond the five-year mark and what would become of Braddock Hills' equipment.

He said Swissvale wants to take over the Braddock Hills department, whereas Forest Hills wants to help maintain it.

Mr. Evonich said he thinks council should collect more information from Forest Hills and Swissvale before making a decision, and he'd like to try to save the Braddock Hills department from being permanently extinguished.

"I think with good leadership, we could save our fire department," he said.

Braddock Hills council President Robert Henkel, whose son is a volunteer fireman with the Forest Hills department, agrees.

"We're waiting to see which one of the two parties would be best for Braddock Hills' situation at this time," he said.

In the meantime, however, Swissvale council voted to charge Braddock Hills for every fire its department responds to beginning June 1.

Mr. Petrarca wrote a letter to Braddock Hills council last week saying Swissvale "cannot continue to [provide fire protection] without just compensation to cover our costs to relieve the burden of our taxpayers."

The letter said Braddock Hills would be charged $475 for service calls, minor fires, car accidents and structure fires requiring a fire engine, and $750 for structure fires requiring an aerial truck. It also lists a charge of $125 for support vehicles and unspecified fees to cover overtime costs.

"Swissvale will not jeopardize the Braddock Hills citizens or their health and safety," Mr. Petrarca said last week, adding that Swissvale has a "mutual aid" agreement with Braddock Hills to help out with fire calls, but the Braddock Hills department never responds.

"This is no longer mutual aid," he said. "What it is, is Swissvale fighting all their fires."

Braddock Hills Councilman Frank Gardone said the borough's fire trucks haven't left the station this year, though Chief Wilhelm said the department responded to a brush fire last month.

Mr. Gardone said the roughly $30,000 that Braddock Hills pays to the borough fire department annually should be given to another department.

"It's a no-brainer," he said. "The fire truck hasn't left the garage since Dec. 31, and all the other fire departments have been picking up our calls."

Mr. Vogel agrees. "We have to do something," he said. "We're spending money on a department that isn't responding to the fires."

Annie Siebert: [email protected] or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.

Copyright 2013 - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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